Exclusive interview: Nicola Sturgeon on offering Scots the choice of a better future
With the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on a knife-edge, the future of the Good Friday Agreement at risk, the Prime Minister having lied to the Queen, and with a general election in the offing, the place to look for political stability has, ironically, been to the part of the UK that keeps threatening to break it up.
But while Nicola Sturgeon’s party rides high in the polls, for both a general election and Holyrood, and with support for independence tipping her way, her own future is in question.
With former first minister, and her mentor, Alex Salmond due to stand trial on charges including attempted rape and sexual assault early next year, and the prospect she may be called into the witness box, speculation is rife about when, not if, she will step down.
Sturgeon herself seems relaxed about her future and affirms she will lead the party into the Scottish Parliament election in 2021 and serve as first minister for another term, should the numbers add up.
“I fully intend to. I’m enjoying leadership and politics generally, but I think in leadership, … you go through periods that are tougher than others and while I’m enjoying it right now – I don’t mean I’m enjoying the state the UK is in; I hate everything about Brexit – but in terms of my personal kind of feelings about politics, I’m enjoying it as much as I’ve ever done right now.
“In terms of any trial, I don’t spend much time thinking about it.
“I’m not in control of it; I’m not controlling the timing of it.
“I’m not in control of the outcome, I’m not in control of any aspect of it and I guess the longer anybody is in politics and in positions of leadership, one of the things you learn is not to spend too much time stressing about the things you’re not in control of because there’s plenty of things you are in control of to focus on.
“So I won’t spend a lot of time stressing or worrying about it.
“What will be will be and around that I would say that I can’t, and I won’t, go into any detail or substance on it because I am not going to prejudice a process that should be respected.
“And I would simply caution others to take the same view and, you know, not listen too much to the kind of gossip that swirls around in that kind of vacuum.”
“There’s always a sense with David Cameron, though, that you could kind of have some sort of working relationship.
For a woman who likes to be in control, she describes the current political situation as “chaotic”, “frustrating” and expresses antipathy towards the Prime Minister.
“It does feels, on one level, very frustrating because obviously there is a lot that is happening that is contributing hugely to the sense of chaos, that I’m not in control of, in any way, shape or form.
“So that is frustrating, and I think, like many ordinary citizens, I feel a real sense of anger at what Boris Johnson is doing, how he’s conducting himself and the real damage he’s doing to the very fabric of democracy, as well as the more immediate damage around Brexit.
“That’s how I feel on the one hand, and on the other, I’ve got a job to do and I’m very focused on getting on and doing that.
“Partly, that’s about planning for whatever scenario unfolds, mainly around the risk of no-deal Brexit, and also, carrying on with the preparations and the plans to give people a choice of a better future than the one Boris Johnson’s offering us.
“I think Westminster can look very alien to Scots right now, and increasingly so, and I’ve talked to a lot of people in the course of my day-to-day working life, and I have noticed a shift.
“There’s been a sense of disquiet, outrage even, about Brexit, since the referendum happened.
“And I think there is now a lot of real anger about it, because it is completely out of sync with the sense we have of ourselves in Scotland and the kind of country we are and the sense of direction we want to go in.
“Add into that mix that you’ve got somebody in Downing Street who has this incredible aggregate sense of entitlement that most people in Scotland, looking at him, just don’t understand why.”
Does she think Boris Johnson is fit to be PM?
“Like anybody in public office, I think that there is a degree of scrutiny that is a) legitimate and b) whether any individual session thinks it’s legitimate or not, is inescapable and unavoidable.
“I do think it’s important that there is a separation, to some extent, between the personal and the public.
“I read a lot of commentary yesterday around the Jennifer Arcuri issue and about her refusing to say whether or not they had an intimate relationship.
“There was a lot of commentary that said that it was nobody’s business and on one level, that’s right, it is nobody’s business.
“I’m not, from any judgmental sense, remotely interested in Boris Johnson’s personal, intimate relationships, that’s a matter for him and the people he’s in a relationship with, and when he was still married, to also his wife, but the important matter there is what impact that had on how he did his job and discharged his duties, and that is, whether he likes it or not, a legitimate area of scrutiny.
“I don’t think anybody is suggesting that a man or a woman that has an extramarital affair is therefore, by definition, not fit to be prime minister.
“I don’t think, as a society, that’s where anybody is, nor should we be, but with Boris Johnson, I don’t think it’s just about his personal life …this is somebody who the Supreme Court has said acted unlawfully, somebody who doesn’t appear, really, to have any respect or consideration for the law or the normal rules of how we do democracy, and that is above and beyond the immediacy of the Brexit issue.
“That, I think, is something that should be enough to make everybody pause for thought right now about his character.”
Since 2015, Sturgeon has dealt with three successive Tory prime ministers and I wonder what her assessment was about them as individuals.
“All three prime ministers are very different characters.
“David Cameron, I profoundly disagreed with on, of course, our philosophy and outlook on life and on politics.
“I profoundly disagreed with him over what I thought was his reckless approach to the Brexit referendum.
“There’s always a sense with David Cameron, though, that you could kind of have some sort of working relationship.
“I could sit in a room with David Cameron and have a conversation.
“We might really disagree … but you always felt it a meaningful, substantive conversation where the person on the other side of the table was not necessarily going to agree with you, or do what you wanted, but he was listening and able to engage.
“With Theresa May, it was very different.
“I think Theresa May … is a serious person … but finding any sort of rapport with Theresa May was virtually impossible because she wouldn’t depart from a script.
“And that was her choice. It was obviously how she preferred to do business, but it meant trying to have a conversation with her that got off the beaten track, … it just didn’t happen, didn’t work, she couldn’t deviate.
“With Boris Johnson, well, … I have only had one meeting with him since he became prime minister.
“And … it was more like back to David Cameron, in the sense that you can have a two-way conversation – but not one that was grounded in reality, in any sense.
“So, taking a step back from it, and looking at it in that way, it’s been three very different experiences but none of them particularly satisfactory for how Scotland is treated where we’re effectively trying to find ways of getting around whatever obsessions a particular Tory prime minister has.”
“I think Westminster can look very alien to Scots right now, and increasingly so
In terms of independence and the timing for a second referendum, Sturgeon will still need to ask the permission of whoever is in No 10.
“My intention is that we’re having a referendum next year, the bill is going through parliament just now and we will address the transfer of power issue at some point while the bill’s going through or during that process.
“Obviously, if there is a general election, we’ll see how that works out, but I think that there should be a referendum next year.”
And if the PM does not grant a Section 30 order allowing a referendum?
“I’ll cross that bridge, and I’ll set out how I cross that bridge if, and when, I come to it.
“But of course, the very strong likelihood is that we will have a test of public opinion around this over the next couple of months and if and when there is a general election, central to that election for the SNP will be Scotland’s right to choose independence.
“I don’t know at the moment what the positive case for Scotland remaining as part of the Westminster system would be, so I don’t know what else they have to throw at us in terms of how Project Fear operated last time but they wouldn’t get away with the same fear-mongering next time because so many of the fears of 2014 have been proven wrong and the things that were meant to happen because we voted Yes have happened, because we voted No.
“The positive case for independence is essentially the same as it was in 2014, but we’ve had the importance … and the necessity of it demonstrated to us over the last three years.
“It’s about not having things done to you … being in charge of your own future … taking the decisions that are right for us.
“In Scotland, it’s about building the kind of country that we want to be, not the kind of country that somebody else decides that we should be.
“And in terms of having that independent future within Europe, we’ve also had demonstrated to us the strength of small countries within the European family of nations.
“I mean, the contrast between how Ireland has benefited from being a part of the EU family of nations, of solidarity, the support it’s had, on the one hand, and on the other hand, Scotland’s contemptible treatment by Westminster. That contrast couldn’t be starker.
“And we would, I think, have a path back in to Europe.
“I never, genuinely never, bought the scare story in 2014, that we wouldn’t be welcomed back into Europe with open arms but, you know, I spend a lot of my time talking to different people in Europe and going to Brussels and other European capitals.
“There is no doubt, not a scintilla of doubt in my mind, that Scotland will find a path back into the European Union and this has been said publicly by others, but there is a sea change in the attitudes that I encounter within the institutions and the member states to the issue of independence and the issue of an independent Scotland being in the EU.”
Meanwhile, Sturgeon has more domestic issues to deal with and the proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act have exposed rare splits within the SNP. Has that surprised her?
“I do think a lot of it is overblown … There’s a lot of misrepresentation and a degree of misunderstanding, which is why the approach we’ve decided to take of having a second consultation on the detail of legislation, I think, is really important.
“People will be able to see what is being proposed but also, hopefully, we’ll be able to see what is not being proposed and that the process of obtaining a gender recognition certificate doesn’t actually have any impact at all on the issue that provokes most debate, which is access to female-only spaces.
“You don’t need a gender recognition certificate right now to access women-only spaces and nothing in the proposed legislation changes that.
“It’s not within our power to change the Equalities Act, but we wouldn’t propose changes anyway.
“So, you know, we’ll see how this goes. The only other thing I would say is that I’ve never, and never will, suggest that people who raised concerns about this are transphobic.
“I don’t believe that is the case.
“I think we can get through it in a sensible way that is respectful of women’s rights, as I would always insist upon, but also, is respectful of trans rights and gets us to a place where people feel accepted for who they are, which I think is the minimum that anybody has a right to expect.”
Does she see dangers in conflating sex and gender?
“Yes, and these are complicated issues that I’m not going to get into right now but … we have set up a sex and gender data working group and I think there’s a number of issues there that we need to calmly and rationally work our way through.
“But I think we can do that. I think we should aspire to do that, in a way that doesn’t get into what many trans people feel is a debate that is about rolling back their rights.”
I suggest that women are feeling their rights are at risk of being rolled back and we get into a longer discussion about how biology shouldn’t limit women’s ambitions, but the reality is, it often does.
Sturgeon’s government has been the first to lift the taboo around menopause and as a woman approaching 50, has she given it much thought?
“Well,” she laughs, “we’ve talked about yours, but I’m not quite there, being so much younger than you.” [She’s six years younger.]
“Seriously, I absolutely welcome the openness. I’m not quite there yet but I’m at that stage where I have become hypersensitive to every kind of change.
“But what I … am much more aware of now is how difficult it is to just find the kind of reliable information that can help.
“It’s not just about destigmatising menopause, it’s about demystifying it, and giving people the information they need.
“I think we’re much further ahead than we have ever been around that, but I think there’s still a long way to go.
“And when I’m at the point, … and able to talk with the benefit of a bit more personal experience, then it’s something that I will personally want to be a bit more vocal about as well.
“The point at which we will have succeeded here is … when it is just taken for granted and that everybody, not just women about to go through it or going through it, but everybody has a better understanding of [it] and that it’s just part and parcel of the cycle of life and there’s an appreciation of the impact it has for some women.
“I think it’s important in my position to be quite frank, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel, still, a sense of discomfort talking about it – and if I feel like that, then that’s just an indicator of how far we’ve got to travel, and that’s something I’ll have to work my way through and deal with.
“I don’t have a difficulty sitting here talking about this to you, but I do, I think, still have a discomfort about the thought of standing up in a public performance and saying, ‘I am going through the menopause’ – which I’m not right now – but when I am, which will be not too far into the future, will I be able to do that?
“I won’t know until I’m there. It’s strange, because as you know, I don’t now have any difficulty talking openly about having had a miscarriage, but there’s something about menopause that just still feels a little bit different.
“I think it’s the sense of just getting older.
“It’s a sort of sense that you are now officially getting older, I mean, I’m already struggling with turning 50 next year, so maybe it’s that.”
It’s interesting to see Sturgeon wrestle with an issue as personal as the menopause when it is her government that has done so much to help lift that taboo, but perhaps, both politically and personally, she feels ‘the change’ is quite literally coming.